A project at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or LBNL, aims to genetically engineer microbes called methanotrophs to convert greenhouse gases, or GHGs, into useful products.
Bioengineering methanotrophs could potentially consume both methane and carbon dioxide, according to Deepika Awasthi, the lead project scientist in the Biological Systems and Engineering division, or BSE. In addition, the gasses can be converted into a biochemical and replace petroleum-derived chemicals in industries making automobile coatings and polyester for clothing.
“This project will integrate two greenhouse gases,” Awasthi said. “This will be an exciting thing to show that microbes and biology can be a potential solution for mitigating the adverse effects of climate change.”
Awasthi said she hopes to turn the microbes into a “superhero.” She intends to give the regular microbe an extra capability — a “cape” — through bioengineering, so that it can be a platform host to produce biofuels and biochemicals out of waste GHGs.
GHGs in the atmosphere are natural and important for maintaining earth’s temperatures, Awasthi said. But in the last few decades, there has been a gradual increase in an imbalance between the extra carbon from the use of fossil fuels and steady natural carbon sinks, according to Awasthi.
Awasthi added that the effect of this imbalance is a leading cause of rising global temperature and climate change.
Steven Singer, a senior scientist at the BSE division and an advisor to the project, said Awasthi’s work is part of the Carbon Negative Initiative at LBNL that aims to develop technologies capable of “drawing down” carbon and storing it for long periods of time. Singer noted that methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and the project plans to turn methane into carbon sinks.
“Projects like Deepika’s are thinking about how to convert methane from fossil sources or biological sources to malonic acid, which is a precursor to polymers,” Singer said. “If you can store carbon from methane in these polymers, you can develop a long-lasting sink for that waste carbon.”
Singer added that the project seeks to recycle GHGs into consumer products and commodity chemicals instead of just storing the gases.
Shubhasish Goswami, a postdoctoral scholar at the BSE division, said he is working on the experimental part of the project to establish a synthetic pathway for producing targeted biochemicals from methane as a feedstock. He added that the initial results of their methodology have been promising.
“I am really super excited for the next steps of this project when I will be quantifying and optimizing biochemical production from the engineered methanotrophic bacteria,” Goswami said in an email. “I am hoping that our goal of showing the biological production of this commercially valuable compound using only GHGs as a feedstock is not far away.”